A Problem With Grazing.

From a reader: The ideas and thinking presented in your blog have been hugely helpful in improving the time my horse and I are together. I have been struggling this summer balancing many of these ideas and finding a way to have my horse NOT eating grass when under saddle. He has been at home since last fall, in Maine, and we have only our grassy pastures in which to ride. Since we used to ride mostly in an arena, this was never a problem before. He seems to enjoy our “rides” enormously. Whereas, I’m exhausted and thinking perhaps bringing a bag of chips for me to enjoy at the same time might be the best solution.

First, I love this. An honest question posed with a sense of humor. She doesn’t want to pick a fight with her horse, but they are doing more grazing than riding. On the ground or in the saddle, are chips the answer?

Bear with me while I restate the question. Horses have no problem at all with grazing. They were born to do it all day long. Their digestive system requires it. Humans have a problem with grazing because it offends our ego that a horse might prefer grass to pandering to our every desire in the saddle.

Start here: an average horse creates two liters of stomach acid during an hour. Hydrochloric acid, and without going into a long lecture about ulcers, he’s right about needing to graze. I require clients to feed hay while tacking up. He needs something in his stomach ahead of the ride. It’s a preparation, just as important as cleaning hooves and saddling correctly.

Then you head to a pasture to ride. Maybe you have a plan but instead, all he wants is to graze. I was taught, back in the dark ages, to pull his head and kick. Usually, he pulled harder and then, game on. We both got mad. The idea of snacking on chips is a huge improvement over exploding resistance and resentment on both sides. And maybe some tequila on the side.

Looking at the bigger picture, there is a thing that happens just before he grazes. He loses forward. He has to, doesn’t he? So, the problem isn’t actually grazing, it’s that he stopped walking or trotting. And yes, I had a horse capable of trotting downhill and eating along the way, but that’s still where I’d start.

In dressage, we believe that we hold a horse’s attention by doing transitions, and a transition is anything different than what you are currently doing. It could be a different speed of walk… or walk-trot transitions. Sad truth: If you ride on grass, you must be more interesting than the grass. If he doesn’t get turnout, it will be harder, but still, you have to hold up your end of the conversation.

It can be easy to fall into a cycle of correction. A bickerfest of rein grabbing and head pulling. Why would we correct his head, when it was his feet at fault? Any punishment that involves pain, and a rein correction always does, is going to show up again when you don’t want it. Forward is the answer, ask him to walk on. Leave his face alone and talk to his hind end. Forward movement comes from behind.

Yes, it’s a small window of opportunity. If your ask for forward comes too late, when he already has his mouth to the grass, then the correction could become a bigger problem than the initial fault. Think timing.

If you are asking and he’s “ignoring” you… well, grazing is also a calming signal. Your cues might be too loud, hands might interfere. Pulling the reins is a halt cue, if you kick and pull at the same time, you’re giving contradictory cues. Take his calming signal!

Is it possible that you could give an energetic message without the feeling of constant correction? Not as easy as it sounds but look for an affirmative answer. Less correction; more direction.

She writes back: Thanks for getting me thinking again. Two of your thoughts hit home, lack of energetic message on my part, we don’t have much forward to begin with and I’m way less interesting that the grass, in fact downright boring.  He gets turn out in the pasture daily. When not riding on the grass, there is no constant correction. However with all the grass eating, even though it’s impossible, I’m wanting to keep him from grabbing instead of releasing when he’s not. I’m thinking my opportunity for a change of thought is when he’s about finished with a mouthful and before he stops and grabs more grass, that might be the best time to ask for a change of gait, direction etc. Also, my thinking and body need to be more focused on where we are going and how, instead of about the grass.  

Now I have to love this rider. She taking stock without defensiveness and thinking ahead. Instead of prepping for a fight, or being frustrated, she’s getting productive. She’s located a time to ask him to walk when there is naturally less resistance, (between bites,) and she’s changed her focus. Instead of staring at the grass, she is focused beyond, to the solution.

This is huge. The thing we pay attention to is the thing that grows. The foundation of affirmative training is to reward what you like and not get mired in what’s not working.

Finally: Here’s a follow-up to our previous emails about grass eating. Boss and I worked in our dirt paddock for a couple days, just on forwardness for both of us. When we first rode in the field again I paid particular attention to when he was preparing to stop and asked him for forward. We put spread some cones and barrels around the field, in order to keep things more interesting for both of us and to give us visual places to go in the field. We are doing so much better!

Yay, great job! She put her focus into concrete action. She improved her timing, then she could give a smaller cue and everyone was happier. She used aids. An aid is something that helps you or your horse stay on track. She might have gotten a whip but instead, she got some cones and practiced point-to-point riding. Affirmative solution! Mostly, she helped her horse.

The photo above: We have some longear friends visiting the farm, and the pair of young donkeys will follow anywhere, but we started leading from behind out in the pasture. We stayed positive because donkeys are never wrong. We negotiated some walking and some grazing. The other word for that is transitions.

They think negotiation is fun; we all get something and we all give something. Winning.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Clinician, Equine Pro

 

38 comments

  1. Really really great emails & answers! I wish I had thought of bringing chips along years ago – could have been much more relaxed “outing” back when I was about 15 & my mare had a very biased view as to what we could do & could not do! She had been “around” & knew how to get her way – most times. Could have used an Anna Blake back then!

    • Hi Anna when i tried the leading from behind with my young filly she became anxious and was pulling me along through the bush..i tried to keep up with her but at times i had to redirect her for safety reasons…advice would be appreciated thanks Cheryl

      • If she is young and lacks confidence, go slow. you might stand at her girth or wider away, find a place she is more comfortable with to start. Ask for just one step with a big reward. Safety above all, you’re right to redirect. I would do it sparingly at first and really, give her time to figure it out. Since I can’t see the two of you, I’m guessing here… Good luck, Cheryl.

  2. My current horse usually doesn’t try to snack along the trails so I feel lucky. However, we do stop for a “grass break” at several places off the trail so maybe he knows that he’ll be able to eat then? I also do allow for an occasional bite as long as he doesn’t stop but just “grabs & goes”.

  3. Thank you for a great discussion and problem solving! On Fri, Aug 24, 2018 at 7:23 AM Relaxed & Forward: AnnaBlakeBlog wrote:

    > Anna Blake posted: ” From a reader: The ideas and thinking presented in > your blog have been hugely helpful in improving the time my horse and I are > together. I have been struggling this summer balancing many of these ideas > and finding a way to have my ho” >

  4. Pass me the Doritos.

    My horse is the worst snacker I’ve encountered, though he has 24/7 pasture turnout. One trainer of mine noticed and said, “It’s like he’s walking through McDonalds, taking it all in as he goes.”

    She tried to teach me to reward him for not snacking. As I led him to a tasty bush/tree, I’d praise him for not eating it. It seemed to work….well, a little. It’s a pain to continually stop and praise the horse for every hazelnut he didn’t stick his head into. (Also, if it’s not obvious, I’d never reward him with treats for not snacking, that would put us into some sort of conundrum.)

    In my endurance past, I had to teach my horses to eat on trail, though they’d rather push forward. I’d stop the and say, “Take one bite of grass, then we can move on” and they’d grudgingly do it. Same with water, “Take one sip” and then my mare started pretending to drink, so she could move on again. No kidding.

    I ride a Haflinger who is supposed to be a horrid snacker under saddle, and he does not snack with me. I somehow was able to tell him on that first day, “No eating with me” and he doesn’t. But my own horse….

    There’s a girl with the most well behaved horse in town. We were observing a lesson and she sat in a chair on the lawn next to me, holding her horse’s rein. He stood above her and never even looked at the grass. Any other horse I know would be making circles around her, nibbling. I asked her how she did it. She said, “He’s very lazy. So riding across a field, when he wanted to graze, I’d lope him. He hated that, and got it very quickly that the best way to not work was to not eat.” *shrug*

    And mine keeps meandering through the McDonalds trail, taking what he likes.

    • Great comment, and without seeing him, I can’t say. He could have a sour stomach, and calming signals would tell a lot. But everyone is different… Thanks, Lytha.

  5. Great post! Just for a little laugh, has the kid who loan my poney was riding him on loose rein, with contact mind you, thie little guy tried to grab some hay (part of the decor) has he was actually doing a flying change on a diagonal! He lost ….and no one was hurt in the process.

  6. There’s been places I’ve ridden so lush and yummy I wished I could join in the feast. Isn’t it a good neck flex to grab a mouthful during forward movement? And another good reason to go bit less?
    Now my recent dreams have come true. I’ve instantly fallen in love with your visiting longear – the one on the left of the frame. Fred says yes, so can we have it pleeeease?!😀

  7. I love this practical application of calming signals and keeping it interesting. Thanks Anna.

  8. Very interesting! Next to our house there is a pasture with Charolais cows and calves. Those cows munch away all day long. I know cows are not horses but when I look at then I am reminded of the fact that horses were originally designed to be like this, munching and moving 24/7.

    • Truth, Anne. We have to try to keep them as normal to their requirements as possible, and our feeding restrictions (2 flakes twice a day) has caused so much harm. Thanks for commenting.

  9. Love this, great questions with such great answers! I absolutely love the thought process, so happy no whips involved. Amazing what we can do with communication with human and horse! ❤ – Diana

  10. What a great discussion! It was by accident that I found the happy medium for my grass-eating Appy. One day after meeting up with a friend to ride, we decided instead to just hang out which is when Cappy’s calming signal was finally acknowledged. And when it was time to go I had a very responsive horse, happy to go forward. This grazing time became a part of our rides which made a world of difference for both of us. I like to think he enjoyed this new way of riding the trail as much as I enjoyed having a true partner.

    • I used to just hate the constant conflict and correction, the adversity…. and they are truly smart enough to work when asked and we can let them rest…so many of us riders were trained that one “mistake” would ruin a horse…. just not true. thanks, Lynell.

      • I remember there were times HE had to remind me when it was time to go!

        I also remember the first time I let my TB loose in the back yard before going on a ride. He was giddy with excitement (you know, the grass is always greener…) My first thought was “I’ll never catch him now that he’s off the farm and now in gay Par/Ree!” It was maybe 15 minutes later that he came back… to thank me maybe for trusting him? Whatever the reason, I was pleasantly surprised!

  11. This is such a great example. Not to focus on the problem…but focus on the answer. Also using aides for attention and focus. Very good! Will be picking up a couple extra cones. Thank you Anna. =-)

  12. Whenever I do work on grass with my Dartmoor she eats maniacally – very grabby. Then she’s super wired and angsty after I pull her up. I wonder how much is her liking the green stuff (she lives on hay only) and how much is actually calming signals? She’s a previous laminitic so I’ll have to have very short sessions of trying the carefully-timed-redirection idea. Great post, as always. Thank you.

  13. Just my two cents worth. I ride Skyler out and about in a hackamore because I expect some snacking to happen. He lives on grass so I know he’s not hungry, but he’s a horse. I’m riding along behind a friend or two so I don’t want to fall too far behind. I love Anna’s words here, because I haven’t thought much about how I handle this, but I don’t bother with his head, just forward, since I don’t mind if he’ll munch on the go. And he will because the foliage is tall enough. What I have learned is to keep my seat moving with my leg cues and it works wonders. It’s more of a squeeze forward than just bumping and kicking. And I cue him just before it happens. I can feel the difference. I try to keep the rhythm and he comes pretty close to keeping the beat while he grabs a bite. And we have always stopped for one grazing break mid ride if it’s more than a 45 minute ride. The horses love that part.

  14. Love the idea about the chips too! 🙂 Isn’t it amazing how a real thought provoking idea morphs into affirmative action on both horse and rider. A win-win! I think I might finally get why at a clinic, Ray Hunt signed my baseball cap with “Think” and just the date. Do you think he might have been trying to tell me something? 🙂

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